Seeing is Believing

Seeing is Believing Pocket Book CoverOne of John Dickson Carr’s most maligned mysteries, Seeing is Believing takes a ridiculous murder plot based around hypnosis, rubber daggers and poisoned grapefruits, and then tops it off with a trick which many people think is cheating. I agree, although I don’t think anyone has yet put their finger on exactly why it’s cheating. In today’s post, I suggest that the fairness of an author’s mystery depends on a good deal of unspoken context, and that it might be possible for a trick to be fair in one author’s hands but unfair in another’s.

[Spoilers for Seeing is Believing. If you want an unspoilt review, see yesterday’s post. For a more favourable second opinion, check out the Puzzle Doctor’s excellent blog.]

Seeing is Believing begins with this matter-of-fact paragraph:

One night in midsummer, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Arthur Fane murdered a nineteen-year-old girl named Polly Allen. That was the admitted fact.

Only he didn’t. It isn’t a fact at all. And the only people who say it is are the murderer and Carr himself.

Seeing is Believing has an extremely elegant structure at its heart. Arthur Fane appears to be wealthy. He has a large house and all the accoutrements of fine living. He also seems to have committed a murder. He talks about it in his sleep and there are many witnesses to attest to his suspicious behaviour on the night Polly Allen disappeared. Hubert Fane appears to be poor and seems to be blackmailing Arthur – mooching off his brother’s wealth and acting like he’s master of the house.

But actually the situation is reversed: Arthur is the blackmailer. He was rich but lost all his money. He talks about the murder in his sleep because he helped conceal it, which is why he was acting suspiciously. Hubert is the murderer, and is actually rather wealthy. He doesn’t seem to be wealthy because he’s a miser through and through. He’s acting like he’s master of the house because, well, why not? It’s an unpleasant situation and he may as well get what small pleasure he can out of it. But Hubert sees the opportunity to pin both the murder and the blackmail on Arthur, so he kills him.

This is really very clever. Both ways of looking at the situation make a lot of sense, and Carr does a good job of keeping both possibilities viable. It could have been the basis for a beautiful reversal, the sort of thing that you find in the best of the Father Brown stories. Instead it’s a mess.

(This is largely due to other aspects to the plot, of course, including the two very stupid impossible crimes I mentioned in the introduction. Even Carr himself isn’t able to muster up much enthusiasm for those. Towards the end, when the twist of the real blackmailer is revealed, he has H.M. say: “That’s the whole secret of this case; and as far as I’m concerned, its the only novelty.”)

This is many people’s least favourite Carr, and it’s easy to see why. Even without considering the “admitted fact” trick, it’s not a very interesting or entertaining book. With the trick, I’d say it’s possible to question whether it’s a mystery at all. Carr himself was very forthright on the topic of fairness in murder mysteries. To cheat so brazenly is a severe breach of trust.

Even people who defend the trick usually admit that the elegant symmetry of the plot is undermined by that first paragraph. For most readers, turning the situation on its head won’t come as a jaw-dropping surprise, but a bemused (or indignant!) “what? But I thought you said at the beginning…?”

It doesn’t even help conceal the important parts of the solution. Hubert is obviously the murderer for any number of other reasons (not least because he was the only suspect not in the room at the time of the murder. In an impossible crime story, where no-one seems to have had the opportunity, anyone with an extra alibi is always suspicious.)

The fact that the motive is concealed doesn’t matter. In a John Dickson Carr mystery, the motive is usually the least of people’s concerns. They’re interested in how it was done, with even the question of who coming quite a way behind.

But is it unfair? Let’s work from the ground up. I don’t think it’s contentious to suggest that if the author explicitly states that “X isn’t the murderer”, and then later says “Ha-ha! X was the murderer after all. I tricked you!”, then that’s a long way from the spirit of the genre. It would certainly be a trick, but not a fair one. If there’s one thing the genre isn’t compatible with, it’s lies. Even the so-called “unreliable narrators” tend to tell a version of the truth at all times (when they do lie, it’s never about the important stuff). Third person narration just can’t be littered with falsehoods. If it’s not in quotation marks, it has to be true.

Carr’s defence, presumably, would be that he didn’t lie. That an admitted fact, in the legal sense, isn’t necessarily a true fact, it’s simply one which both sides have accepted and which doesn’t have to be proven. But there are two issues with that. First, most people are going to be unfamiliar with the term as Carr uses it. For them “admitted” is going to be taken to mean “accepted” rather than “submitted” (as in “submitted for your approval”). Neither of those quite capture the sense, but it’s the second one that’s closest to Carr’s intention. It’s also the weakest of the two meanings, presenting the statement as an assertion rather than an acknowledged truth. But it’s the stronger meaning that’s likely to be in people’s minds, and Carr should have realised that.

The second issue is the more serious. Carr has a long-established habit of using phrases like the “admitted fact” one to mean “obviously I can’t just come out and say X, because this is a book and I have to maintain a veneer of fiction. But there are some things which can’t be 100% verified in the real world, so for the purposes of this puzzle, X is true.”

This is the heart of the issue, and the point that I think people miss when they discuss whether this particular clue is fair. Objectively, I can see that there are situations where saying something is an “admitted fact” and then revealing that it’s false would be perfectly fair. Most of those situations would be where the “admitted fact” phrase occurs in dialogue or in books with a first-person narrator, but I can imagine plenty of third-person books that could get away with this trick. But none of them could be by John Dickson Carr. Reading any mystery – particularly a John Dickson Carr mystery – comes with a lot of context, and it’s this context which makes the clue unfair. (I’m sure no-one will contest my modest assertion that Seeing is Believing is extremely unlikely to be the first Carr anyone reads, and even less likely to be their first mystery of any sort!)

Carr’s books are not naturalistic, nor are they intended to be. They’re puzzles first and foremost, and little attempt is made to hide the presence of the author. In a much-quoted (and overrated) section from Carr’s masterpiece, The Hollow Man, his other series detective, Dr Fell, begins by happily admitting that he’s “in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending that we’re not.” In the solution to Seeing is Believing itself, H.M. remarks that Arthur being the killer is only an “admitted fact” (and it’s clearly marked as a quotation), even though no character in the story has used that phrase to him or anyone else. It’s like H.M. has a direct hotline to the author.

Still, the constant presence of the author is a good fit for Carr. His books are a battle of wits, and a game without a clear opponent is less fun. Even if you’re not in it for the challenge, there are good reasons to be glad of Carr’s obvious presence. His mysteries are more complicated than average, and the reasons why his impossible situations seem impossible sometimes require a lot of explanation and reiteration. This is complicated by the fact that the atmosphere and tension often relies on characters having witnessed something they can’t believe has happened. But since everyone is suspicious to the experienced reader, and the experienced reader is who Carr always has in mind, there has to be a way to eliminate the most boring and plausible solution: that the person who saw the impossibility is just making it up. But there’s often no satisfactory way to do this without direct intervention from the author. Appeals to rationality (“but why would X make it up?”) don’t carry much weight in a genre where most characters are lying about something and where books almost always feature one unexpected reason for doing something unusual and often many more.

Carr regularly uses footnotes, or brazen authorial intrusions into the text, stating that certain facts can be taken on trust. He’ll say that certain characters can be trusted, certain observations are true, or even that certain people are innocent (usually minor characters, ones who he’d rather didn’t have to exist but logically have to, given the setting, such as servants, crewmen or staff). The technique is blunt, but simple, and the reader is likely to be forgiving. Everyone is reading Carr for the mystery rather than his insights into society or the human condition; having the conditions and limitations of the puzzle plainly stated is in everyone’s best interests.

(And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of tricks that can be played here. A favourite of Carr’s is to say that certain facts are “strictly true”. This should always set alarm bells ringing and have you on the look out for unjustified assumptions, however minor.)

Carr even makes this sort of assertion, this time as a genuine aid to the reader, in the very same book. At the end of chapter 5, Frank Sharpless says:

“But you’re just as sure about the other thing. So am I. I’ve got eyes. I’ve got ears. I’ll take my Bible oath. I’ll swear to my dying day, that nobody could have got in here either by the windows or by the door!”

To which Carr adds:

And, as a matter of fact, he was perfectly right.

The intent here is clear. It’s an instruction to the reader to ignore the possibility of an intruder sneaking in unnoticed. (It’s also a perfectly fair way of trying to detract suspicion from Hubert, who was outside at the time of the murder, and who committed it by using the window but without actually coming in. There’s that “strictly true” ethos! Although it doesn’t really work to divert suspicion here, because it’s emphasising for a third time just how impossible it would have been for Hubert to have done it. I think even the most gullible reader will be swivelling their head in Hubert’s direction at this point.)

If you grant the premise that 99% of readers will have prior Carr experience, I don’t see how any of them can be expected to realise the statement in chapter 5 is a genuinely helpful message from the author to the reader but the one in chapter 1 is the exact opposite. Either you can trust your opponent to apply the rules consistently or you can’t. If you can’t, then why play in the first place?

And that’s why Seeing is Believing is an unfair mystery. Not because the “admitted fact” trick is inherently cheating or unworkable – although I certainly won’t be appropriating it any time soon – but because it’s John Dickson Carr who’s doing it. It undermines a convention he’s established between himself and the reader, in this and other books, that we’ll accept these little authorial pronouncements because to present them more subtly would be too time-consuming, or require too much skill and effort, and wouldn’t we all rather be getting on with the business of finding out how the killer walked through walls? But it’s undeniably weak technique, and a concession granted magnanimously by the reader in exchange for a fair and interesting mystery. To take advantage of that is very bad form, especially for an author who puts so much stock in doing right by mystery readers.

So what can we learn from this? Is there much point dissecting a book which has so little going for it in the first place? I think it’s important for mystery writers to remember that their books don’t exist in a vacuum. There have never been any hard and fast rules for fairness in mysteries, even when the Detection Club were at the height of their influence. Readers learn the basics as they read their first mysteries, but then they develop their own expectations for different authors. What might be considered fair game from one author could well be unacceptable from another. Authors need to realise what concessions their readers are making for them, and be careful not to take advantage. Once trust in the fairness of an author’s puzzles is undermined, it’s almost possible to get it back.

9 thoughts on “Seeing is Believing

  1. Rich, forgive me, if I began to skimp over your very detailed analysis. Here, I will just share my thoughts as to why I think the opening paragraph is unfair, and you can reply with your own.

    The way I see it, in a very primitive way, there are two possible ways that the reader should logically view that paragraph (by whatever Carr’s rules may be):
    1. As a fact.
    2. As a admission, though it’s completely unclear as to who is making it or why, in fact, we should believe it.

    I would argue that if the choice is 2, the entire premise and puzzle of the book largely collapses, as then you are left wondering why the heck would Carr start the book off with such a confusing unnecessary statement and are immediately led to the solution and the answer.

    Therefore, this clue only works if the reader should logically, and by that, according to Carr rules, assume the statement is a genuine fact, for the purposes of the puzzle.

    And that’s a lie.

    I also really didn’t like the Scottish Jew part. As other readers pointed out it’s unnecessary. Any person of that profession would be likely to very exact about collecting debt and therefore Carr inserting such a slur is in no way justified.

    • Sorry, my posts can be kind of long. We seem to basically be in agreement. If you’ve read Carr before (and why would Seeing is Believing be your first?) then the only way to interpret this “admitted” fact is as a regular fact, i.e. true.

      The point of my rambling wasn’t to assert that this book isn’t stupid and unfair (it is), but to see whether the “admitted fact” gambit is ALWAYS going to be unfair. I don’t think it necessarily is. But I do think it’s something that Carr, through his other writing, could never legitimately use.

      It’s hard to be objective once you know the solution, but what if I rewrite it to say: “One night in midsummer, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Arthur Fane murdered a nineteen-year-old girl named Polly Allen. Everyone knew that.”

      Or even, if you think it’s “admitted fact” that’s the problem:

      “One night in midsummer, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Arthur Fane murdered a nineteen-year-old girl named Polly Allen. Everyone knew that. It was admitted fact.”

      I think both of those are fine. (Although whether they give the game away too soon is another matter).

      There are quite a few ways in which Carr is ignorant of his own audience’s perception. Dimensions are one I’ve mentioned before. In many books Carr takes a very haphazard approach to the size and dimensions of things. And that’s fine. Carr doesn’t particularly care about these things, and it rarely matters whether something is precisely 10 foot tall (or merely “very large” and Carr somehow thinks it’s plausible for it to be 80 foot tall). Except… sometimes the odd dimensions of things are VITAL CLUES (e.g. Judas Window) and Carr thinks that just mentioning the size of something a few times is sufficient. But he can’t have it both ways.

      And I agree about the Scottish Jew thing. Just horrible. If Carr wasn’t so instructional (both in terms of good and bad technique), I wouldn’t read him.

      • “One night in midsummer, at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Arthur Fane murdered a nineteen-year-old girl named Polly Allen. Everyone knew that.”

        That’s much better.

        There is one problem with this:

        Because it’s stated at the beginning of the story, to me, the mind logically assumes that at the beginning of the story everybody knows that.

        Whereas in the story “everyone learns it at a certain point in the story”. And, believe it or not, the only way for the mind to resolve the conundrum of “why was this stated at the beginning of the story” is to say “the story starts with the statement of accepted facts”.

        What do you think “Everybody in (whatever made up village Carr used that time) knew….(blah blah blah). It was admitted.”

      • “Carr doesn’t particularly care about these things, ”

        You know what, I think he absolutely does.
        There are stories in which it’s clear the writer cares about too many other things and delivers on them accordingly, to care whether the gun involved was invented twenty years later.
        With Carr, he absolutely cares and believes that he has created a flawless puzzle. He treats you accordingly.
        And it is that, which is, in my mind, his biggest shortcoming.

      • Oh sure. Carr loved details. But only certain ones. As soon as numbers become involved, he checks out. Castle Skull is supposed to have “thirty foot thick walls”. The rock formation in Night at the Mocking widow is absurdly high. The game they play at the end of The Four False Weapons makes absolutely no sense. Carr did the research, but blindly copied the source. Even a moment’s thought would show that the original author completely misunderstood the rules. (That the game is massively in favour of the bank even with the correct rules is less intuitive, which I guess is why so many people were bankrupted by it!)

        So when you’re reading, the only sensible thing to do is to gloss over these mad numbers. They usually don’t matter. Except in the handful of instances where they do.

        Carr’s hypocrisy (or perhaps lack of self-awareness) is quite interesting. There’s a quote of his about him hating mysteries that rely on a single detail (it’s something about a green tie, I think) and yet some of his mysteries are vastly underclued. The White Priory Murders is an obvious example, where the reader is supposed to spot that a car ornament has changed despite only getting two mentions over a hundred pages apart! Or The Crooked Hinge. The ludicrousness of the prosthetics aside, there are a million opportunities to clue the fact that the killer has no legs. But there’s scarcely a mention, and the rest of the time he happily bounds about as though there’s nothing wrong.

      • “The White Priory Murders is an obvious example, where the reader is supposed to spot that a car ornament has changed despite only getting two mentions over a hundred pages apart!”

        Haha, I used that very example on the old GAD board and just almost cited it in my reply.
        Yes, it’s baffling.
        You know what’s sad? White Priory is about the only instance I remembered the minor clue in question and completely ignored it.

        “Or The Crooked Hinge. The ludicrousness of the prosthetics aside, there are a million opportunities to clue the fact that the killer has no legs. But there’s scarcely a mention, and the rest of the time he happily bounds about as though there’s nothing wrong.”

        Discussed this on GAD. I actually think the complete non-guessability of prosthetics is irrelevant and works. The sudden “club over head” revelation fits nicely with the atmosphere.

        You know what I hate about that one?

        They pretty much spend the entire book f***ing over the Golden Hag, which turns out to have little to no relevance to the mystery and zero relevance to how the mystery was done.

      • Yes. I suspect Carr thought that he just HAD to have some kind of supernatural/historical link in there. But it’s completely irrelevant and takes up too much room in an already overstuffed narrative.

        There’s some brilliant ideas in there (the explanation for the false claimant is silly, but clever; the “surprise murder” after locking the old guy up in what seems like an obvious locked room is one of the best tricks he ever pulled. Killing off the new claimant is completely unexpected because it seems to derail the whole plot.)

        Unfortunately, it makes no damn sense overall. It’s not even an impossible crime. The killer having no legs is surprising, but doesn’t explain anything at all, because even people with legs can crawl…

        Sigh. That book’s just a hot mess!

      • Agreed. Setting up a locked room, only to kill the guy standing right outside of it. Sheer brilliance, and a testament to Carr’s creative genius. Also, I think writing-wise (and here I use the term incorrectly to refer to ability and desire to psychologically set-up various moods) one of his strongest.

        The impossible crime is not impossible for even stronger reasons than you mention (Carr argues that a crawling man could not move as fast as one used to moving on stumps–I wonder what Pistorius would think of that, sorry, tasteless joke)–I don’t know if you notice that, but the two witnesses to the crime being impossible (looking from second floor) turn out to both be lying to cover Patrick Gore up.

  2. Interestlingly, though…we seem to disagree here.
    For all the questionable messes in his books, I consider many of Carr’s books to be very good books and fun reads. What’s more, I think they are better written, precisely because he does not go for the kind of pseudo-deep psychological wasting of pages that many other not-so-good writers get into. He does it sometimes, sometimes pulls it off surprisingly well and leaves the rider enjoying a fun, though sometimes silly, ride.

    To put in Agatha Christie terms, it’s better to read a Tommy & Tuppence than one of her post-WWII books.

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